How to Read Literature Like a Professor

(Axel Boer) #1

grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and
a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as
sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat
old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed
square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of
bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the
first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse
green sashes.

No writer ever took such care about food and drink, so marshaled his forces to create a military effect
of armies drawn up as if for battle: ranks, files, “rival ends,” sentries, squads, sashes. Such a paragraph
would not be created without having some purpose, some ulterior motive. Now, Joyce being Joyce, he
has about five different purposes, one not being enough for genius. His main goal, though, is to draw us
into that moment, to pull our chairs up to that table so that we are utterly convinced of the reality of the
meal. At the same time, he wants to convey the sense of tension and conflict that has been running
through the evening—there are a host of us-against-them and you-against-me moments earlier and even
during the meal—and this tension will stand at odds with the sharing of this sumptuous and, given the
holiday, unifying meal. He does this for a very simple, very profound reason: we need to be part of that
communion. It would be easy for us simply to laugh at Freddy Malins, the resident drunkard, and his
dotty mother, to shrug off the table talk about operas and singers we’ve never heard of, merely to snicker
at the flirtations among the youngerp. 14people, to discount the tension Gabriel feels over the speech of
gratitude he’s obliged to make at meal’s end. But we can’t maintain our distance because the elaborate
setting of this scene makes us feel as if we’re seated at that table. So we notice, a little before Gabriel
does, since he’s lost in his own reality, that we’re all in this together, that in fact we share something.

The thing we share is our death. Everyone in that room, from old and frail Aunt Julia to the youngest
music student, will die. Not tonight, but someday. Once you recognize that fact (and we’ve been given a
head start by the title, whereas Gabriel doesn’t know his evening has a title), it’s smooth sledding. Next
to our mortality, which comes to great and small equally, all the differences in our lives are mere surface
details. When the snow comes at the end of the story, in a beautiful and moving passage, it covers,
equally, “all the living and the dead.” Of course it does, we think, the snow is just like death. We’re
already prepared, having shared in the communion meal Joyce has laid out for us, a communion not of
death, but of what comes before. Of life.

3 – Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires

p. 15WHAT A DIFFERENCE A PREPOSITION MAKES! If you take the “with” out of “Nice to eat
with you,” it begins to mean something quite different. Less wholesome. More creepy. It just goes to
show that not all eating that happens in literature is friendly. Not only that, it doesn’t even always look
like eating. Beyond here there be monsters.

Vampires in literature, you say. Big deal. I’ve read Dracula. And Anne Rice.

Good for you. Everyone deserves a good scare. But actual vampires are only the beginning; not only
that, they’re not even necessarily the most alarming type. After all, you can at least recognize them. Let’s
start with Dracula himself, and we’ll eventually see why this is true. You know how in all those
p. 16Dracula movies, or almost all, the count always has this weird attractiveness to him? Sometimes
he’s downright sexy. Always, he’s alluring, dangerous, mysterious, and he tends to focus on beautiful,

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